My father embodied the spirit of play. He loved all kinds of physical activity including skiing, sailing and basketball. Sailing was an enduring favourite. So much so that it bound our entire family together and continues to serve as guiding metaphor for my own life’s journey.
An early childhood memory was the day my father and his friend arrived trailing a forest green, wooden-hulled, 19-foot sailboat - a popular North American racing icon of the mid-1970s. I remember being with my sister and mum looking through a smudged window at, “The Boat” parked on a trailer in the friend’s yard. Two largish men were crouched in it’s hull, gluing, sanding and giggling as they began their dry dock adventure of mateship through boat repair.
Flash forward a few years and my father’s interest transformed into a life passion. Our family joined a sailing club on the Hudson River, where he traded the wooden hulled craft for a newer, faster model, then roped my mother, sister and me into becoming permanent crew.
I still dream about being on the boat, in flow, lifted by the wind, sun beaming on my skin, heading with embodied determination toward a mark, confident in my abilities to get there and back... fast!
But any competitive sailor worth her salt knows that the experience is totally dependent on context and conditions. Wind, weather, current, tide and topography all conspire in often complex, uncertain and unpredictable ways to affect the race, regardless of one’s skill and experience. When the wind dies, sails go limp, waters turn glazy and propulsion halts. In this becalming, a menacing sense of powerlessness emerges.
Becalmed for my family on a small boat in blazing summer heat meant extreme dis-ease. We avoided this feeling by ferociously paddling whilst searching the horizon for puffs strong enough to stir the leeward sails. On rare occasions, surrender would triumph, at which point we’d drop anchor and raft up with fellow drifters, sharing sandwiches and cans of Dr. Pepper until either the breeze returned, or we could get towed back to shore. In essence there was always a choice, expel lots of energy trying to figure out how to manipulate circumstance, or transform our relationship to the race.
When I turned thirteen my family was becalmed by my father’s cancer diagnosis. My mother chose to paddle hard, my father to “raft up” and drift with the tide. Family and friends contrived singular causality for the cancer:
“It was because of his unexpressed emotions.”
“It was because of his relationship with his father.”
“It was because of all those pesticides growing up in the 40s and 50s!”
Amidst the paddling, drifting and blaming, my father managed to survive twenty-two years in a perpetual state of dis-ease. For a long time, I looked back on those years with deep sadness. Sadness for him, the recipient of blame and projection; sadness for me, losing my hero at thirteen just when I needed him most.
Hindsight and maturity has nuanced my view of our becalming. As a parent of a soon-to-be-thirteen-year-old, I now reflect with awe on my parents’ resilient response to the illness. I understand that my mother’s fierce paddling provided the space for my father to courageously attend all of our school and sporting activities, acknowledge every achievement, be present for others in times of confusion, pain and disappointment, keep us laughing and model healthy masculine kindness and affection.
Before the becalming, I thought living well meant steady breezes and billowing sails. I imagined myself - a child in constant flow with super powers controlling the wind. But now I know a life well lived is one that responds to the billowing and the becalming like rests between notes in a musical score; motion and stillness telling the same story of truth, beauty and goodness. My father and mother seemed to know this too, enacting this equilibrium in a way that was right for them.
In honour of the paddler AND the drifter, may we all embrace both the flow AND the becalming with equal measure in this timeless race toward the sun.